Passed ball irks Webster

Sitting is biggest pain of season of injuries for O's frustrated catcher

June 08, 1999|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

MIAMI -- When Lenny Webster recoiled from a high inside fastball and buckled his right ankle, he was told by doctors that the resulting injury would take six to eight weeks to heal.

It will be a month this weekend since the Orioles catcher strained a tendon in Cleveland. He may be right on schedule in his recovery, but he's no less frustrated as a season passes before his eyes.

As he dressed yesterday for a game against the Florida Marlins that would be postponed because of rain, Webster said there's been improvement in the ankle but he still feels pain when trying to push off with his right foot. The same discomfort occurs from the pounding that comes with each stride as he runs.

"I'm still not free to go 100 percent," he said. "It's getting better, but it's slow, and that bothers me because I thought it would only be a couple weeks and it's taken longer. When you want to play and you can't, it's tough. That's the hard part right now."

Webster went on the disabled list retroactive to May 13 after twisting the ankle while avoiding a Dwight Gooden pitch. It was his first game back after the bat of Chicago's Ray Durham struck his right hand as he attempted a throw to second on May 6. Neither mishap resulted in a fracture, but they were bad breaks nonetheless.

He's able to take batting practice, his swing unaffected by the tender ankle, and he's caught some balls from a pitching machine. But he's inflicted with an injury that can't be rushed.

"You risk a sprained tendon becoming a torn tendon and you're done for the year. That's the touchy part about it," he said.

There are other delicate issues. Webster, 34, can become a free agent after this season. He yearns to play on a regular basis, but lost that chance with the Orioles after they traded for four-time Gold Glove catcher Charles Johnson. He could draw interest from other clubs if the Orioles are willing to make a deal, but only if proven healthy.

Each day he sits does nothing to help his cause. It also does nothing to help a team that sits in last place in the AL East, 13 games under .500 and fighting for air.

"I need to play. I need to be playing right now," he said.

"Had I broken it, it might be different. The bone would heal. You put it in a cast and it heals. But with tendons and ligaments, it's tricky. It takes a little bit longer."

In his absence, the Orioles have been riding Johnson for long stretches, hoping he doesn't break down. Johnson has played in 29 of the last 30 games, including 28 starts, and eased any concerns by scalding the ball. He's hitting .310 with six homers and 16 RBIs in his last 17 games, and .320 since April 30.

The Orioles brought up Tommy Davis from Triple-A Rochester when Webster went on the DL, but manager Ray Miller was hesitant to use him. Mike Figga was claimed off waivers from the New York Yankees last week to take Davis' spot, and has gained Miller's confidence after one start. He's been praised for his ability to frame pitches and set a low target, and is coming off a season at Triple-A Columbus when he hit 26 homers and drove in 95 runs.

"I'm going to get him in there a heck of a lot more than the other guy," Miller said.

Even so, Johnson will continue to pull a heavy load. Figga will await his chances, which figure to increase as the temperature rises. And Webster will try to remain patient and seek encouragement from every pain-free step in his recovery.

"I'm coming along," he said, "but for me it's too slow. Way too slow."

Orioles today

Due to yesterday's rainout, the Orioles play a doubleheader today.

Opponent: Florida Marlins

Site: Pro Player Stadium, Miami

TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)

Game 1

Time: 4: 05 p.m.

Starters: Orioles' Mike Mussina (7-3, 4.26) vs. Marlins' Ryan Dempster (3-1, 2.89)

Game 2

Time: *7: 35 p.m.

Starters: Orioles' Jason Johnson (0-1, 9.31) vs. Marlins' Alex Fernandez (1-3, 2.92)

* approximate

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